The Eyemouth Fish Tithe Dispute:
The State Church Promoting
PETER AITCHISON, M.A.
The private world of the nineteenth-century fisherman, like that of
the Gael, was long misunderstood by blinkered outsiders who
sought to measure culture by the yardstick of the so-called normal
civilised society. Even today fishing communities are marked off by
the distinctiveness of their occupational lifestyle from other,
similarly sized, villages and towns. They are naturally insular and
suspicious of alien intrusion, and prejudices within and against
fishing communities have remained strong. Unfortunately the very
rich tapestry of the fishing culture, with its emphasis on music,
dance, and drama has tended, because of this, to be blurred by a
traditional perception of fishermen as violent drunkards, and
fishing towns as smelly ghettoes.
During last century, the indigenous fishing communities which
clung, limpet-like, to the craggy shores of the Scottish east coast
were the subject of popular early social anthropological studies.
Thumb-nail sketches of each were provided to give an overview of
Scottish fishing life. The observations were rarely flattering. At
Eyemouth the population was regarded in 1869 as, . . a rough
uncultivated people, and more drunken in their habits than the
fishermen of neighbouring villages” 1 Riots which had rocked that
small Berwickshire town in 1861 were cited as evidence of the
transparency of the religious revival which greatly affected fishing
towns generally, and Eyemouth in particular, in the previous year.
The same author castigated the indolence of the Scottish
fisherman, observing, ‘‘The sea is free to all, without tax and
without rent”. 2 The sea was indeed a free field whose produce
could be reaped by anyone who had a mind to fish and a boat to
sail in. But, almost peculiarly at Eyemouth, vicarage teind was
levied on the treasures of the deep, as a supplement to the otherwise
inadequate ministerial stipend. It was this clerical imposition which
ignited the disturbances in 1861 which lay behind more than a
decade of serious religious trouble in Eyemouth.
One of the smallest parishes in Scotland, Eyemouth had been
elevated to separate parochial status in 1618 after a historic
association with Coldingham priory. 3 Fish tithe probably arose
' J. G. Bertram, The Harvest of the Sea (London, 1869), 483.
; Ibid., 307.
A. Thomson, Coldingham: Parish and Priory (Galashiels, 1908), 246;
l o ] erwickshire [/Views’, 5 Feb. 1913.
from this connection. What was once a free gift periodically
offered by fishermen for religious solace at some point became
recognised as an obligation, as the church established its right to a
proportion of the catch which came from part of the vicarage teind.
In the eighteenth century, when the Eyemouth people were more
professional smugglers than occupational fishermen, fish teind
dwindled to negligible importance and was commuted, for genuine
Eyemouth-based fishermen, into a fixed annual payment, or
modus, of £20 Scots (33s. 4d. Sterling). 4 The acid test of
qualification for paying modus was proof of full-time participation
in the winter haddock season; the summer herring drave, at this
point, was undeveloped. Later, when the herring trade improved,
full teind was demanded from those Eyemouth men who
participated solely in the herring season, but thereafter they
reverted to their normal professions of weaving, tailoring,
shoemaking, etc. 5 Those who paid the modus and fished all year
round were exempted from a payment of a tenth of their herring
catches. A third form of this taxation was extracted from visiting
fishing boats which made Eyemouth their base during the summer
herring drave. These were liable for half-teind, that is, a twentieth
of their catch.
With the herring boom of the post-Napoleonic era, the
Eyemouth economy was transformed from one relying mainly on
coastal shipping, to one wholly dependent on the success or failure
of the summer herring drave and the winter haddock season. 6
Almost continuously from the “California Days’’ of the 1830s the
story was one of conspicuous progress. The home fleet expanded
from eight small boats in 1818 to 26 fine large craft by 1854, each
of which paid the modus, thereby substantially boosting the kirk’s
living. In addition to these normal white fishing boats, the
Eyemouth men also owned and partly crewed twice as many
separate vessels, designed specifically for the herring drave. In the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it seemed that so long
as the Eyemouth men payed modus (usually with the skipper as
collector) they could fish tax-free from as many boats as they
wished at any season of the year. 7 However, as the herring crews
were necessarily supplemented by migrant wage labourers, a grey
area of legal dubity was created. 8 Stranger boats frequenting the
4 New Statistical Account, ii, 333.
J Scottish Record Office, AF/23/42, [EJyemouth [Fishery [OJffice, Minute
Book, 23 Dec. 1827.
‘ [B]erwick [ A]dvertiser , 5 Apr. 1845. .
[E]yemouth [H]arbour [T]rust, Minute Books 1797-1874 (private collection).
7 Much information is provided on these decisions, and on how they were
interpreted locally, in the pamphlets relating to the Fish Tithe Dispute preserved
in the Home of Wedderburn MSS collection (SRO, GD/267/14/1).
11 Pamphlet letter of David Milne-Home of Wedderburn to William Spears,
fisherman of Eyemouth (Edinburgh, Jun. 1862), 8.
port in the summer months likewise multiplied in numbers between
the early and mid-nineteenth century, with crews from as far afield
as Caithness and Cornwall aiding the prodigious growth of an
increasingly wealthy fishery station. In the 1820s, a group of
Eyemouth merchants leased the right to tithe these stranger craft
from the local minister, to ensure that the ecclesiastical impost did
not deter boats from visiting Eyemouth. 9
By the 1830s, however, it seemed as if at Eyemouth, as had
happened elsewhere in Scotland, fish tithe was gradually dying a
natural death. The Rev. John Turnbull, incumbent from 1825 until
seceding at the Disruption, never exacted large amounts of tithe
and found extreme difficulty in collecting even modest sums. 10 As a
native of the town he knew well the popular hatred of the tax and
the baneful effect that it had on religious observance." Undeniably
the denudation of the Established church in Eyemouth in 1843,
when two-thirds of the members and the entire eldership left, can
be partly attributed to the antagonism created by the fish tithe. 12 It
also, of course, reflected the dislike of these colourful and musical
people for services which have been described as probably the
baldest and rudest in Christendom. 13 The growth of dissent in
Eyemouth can in fact be marked from the arrival of the Primitive
Methodists in 1834 and the warm reception given to the United
Secessionists in 1841. 14
In aspects other than worship, the 1840s was a time of decision
and change. The fishing industry in Scotland had greatly altered in
character since the early years of the century. Bigger and more
expensive craft sailed into ever deeper waters, markets were
developing both at home 15 and abroad, 16 and the pursuit of the
haddock and the herring had become big business. Fishing
communities situated on tidal creeks, as Eyemouth was, either
moved towards better facilities, to share in this prosperity, or else
regressed to stagnation. All depended on the number of boats
prepared to use the station, the harbour revenue available for
interest guarantees on expansion loans, or some other local security
for the same. Only the clear demonstration of success could
SRO (AF/4/4). [FJishery [BJoard, Entry Book of Memorials, 20 Jan. 1847.
10 EFO (AF/23/43), 17 Dec. 1849; New Statistical Account, ii, 330.
" BA, 15 Apr. 1837; FB, Minute Book (SRO, AF/1/14), 9 Dec. 1846.
12 BA, 12 Jul. 1845.
11 O. Bussey, The Religious Awakening of 1858-1860 (Edinburgh Ph.D. thesis,
14 1947), 24; T. D. Landels, William Landels DD: A Memoir (London, 1900), 11.
W. M. Patterson, Men on Fire (London, 1911), 126-7; Souvenier Booklet of
Eyemouth Methodist Church', Landels, William Landels, 13. BA, 16 Apr. 1842.
I6 FFO ( SRO - AF/23/43-44); BA 5 Apr. 1845, 4 Jul. 1846, 2 Aug. 1851.
BA, 16 Apr. 1842. Also see FB Annual Reports. Ftere it should be noted that the
export market was, in this period at least, of relatively minor importance in the
local economy, and that prosperity stemmed rather from the demand of the
home urban and industrial centres.
persuade prospective investors, or government agencies such as the
Board of Fisheries, to finance crucial harbour developments.
The parish of Eyemouth was too small to provide even a
minimal loan security of the kind that was needed and,
paradoxically while the fishing industry had expanded, harbour
revenue at the port had actually fallen. This followed the
depression in the coastal trade caused by the railway mania of the
second quarter of the nineteenth century, and the situation was
made worse by the fact that fishing boats paid no dues at Eyemouth
because of their liability to the ancient and traditional vicarage
teind. 17 Bad management had saddled the harbour trust with a
substantial debt of £2,000, and the service payments on this left
scant resources for even routine maintenance. 18
Clearly, if fish tithe either ceased to be demanded, or was
abolished altogether, then some new local Act might restructure the
toll levies and place the harbour on a sound financial footing. After
1843, with the Established church in a distinct minority in
Eyemouth, there seemed no moral reason for the tithe to continue.
Nervous merchants were also acutely aware of warnings from Firth
boats that, should the tithe not be removed, they might seek
alternative quays at which to land their lucrative catches. 19
In June 1845 the Rev. Stephen Bell accepted the call at the
Established Church in Eyemouth. A small man, but large of heart
and determined of principle, he set about transforming the town
through the vigorous promotion of social institutions such as a
savings bank, library, lectures and prayer meetings. He was also
alive to the debilitating effects which the imposition of the fish tithe
brought to all religious denominations in the town, and swiftly
moved to gain the support of Chirnside Presbytery in petitioning
the Fishery Board for an annual grant which would replace the
hated tax. 20 In this move, he won the backing of the parish heritors,
most significantly David Milne-Home, superior of Eyemouth
through his wife, proprietor of three quarters of the town, and
leading protagonist in the ensuing controversy. 21
Bell requested something in the order of £75 per annum to
augment the annual stipend of around £140, and the Fishery Board
responded to his memorial with a powerful appeal to the Treasury
on the merits of the case. Drawing on the observations of the local
fishery officer that,
17 EHT, Minute Book, 14 Mar. 1855; Pamphlet letter of Milne-Home to Spears,
" EHT, Minute Book, 12 Mar. 1856. Statement of John Shand, Convener of the
General Assembly Committee on Fish Teind, to James Moncrieff, Lord
Advocate, Feb. 1862 (Lord Advocate’s Papers, SRO, AD/156/38).
'• BA, 12 Jul. 1845.
20 SRO, CH2/516/7, Presbytery of Chirnside, Minute Book, 1 Dec. 1846.
21 SRO, HR/252/3, Eyemouth Parish Heritors, Minute Book, 3 Dec. 1846.
“This fish tithe has been one cause of irreligion, drunkenness,
and imprudence which seems unfortunately to be prevalent
among the fishermen of Eyemouth, and it keeps many boats
from entering the port of Eyemouth”, 22
the Board cited the case as unique, and deserving special treatment.
But the Treasury remained unmoved, and future memorials
likewise failed. 23
Bell was now placed in a hopeless situation. It is true that if he
did not insist on payment of the tithe he might endear himself to the
largely fishing population of the town, and perhaps increase his
weekly congregations. But in so doing he would not only be
removing an important element of the living, but would be
alienating a traditional right of the church. Ultimately, he decided
to seek an amicable via media by tightening up on the loose tithe
exactions, to satisfy the needs of the benefice, without adversely
affecting the trade of the port or impinging too much on the
pockets of the increasingly affluent fishermen, many of whom
earned much more than he did. 24 The minister picked on a number
of merchants who owned summer herring boats but who did not
themselves fish, and who refused to pay any more than a few
shillings as tithe. 25 In particular, Bell singled out the leading
Eyemouth fisherman-merchant of his day, William Spears, and
took him to court in order to establish what was due from whom
and which groups, if any, were legally entitled to exemption from
the payment of herring teind, as distinct from the payment of
Willie Spears, “Kingfisher”, resembled Stephen Bell both in
stature and in the strength of his convictions. While the minister
held that the church must be given what it was due, Spears averred
that the fishermen were morally, and probably legally entitled to
refuse such impositions. “Great man” theories may periodically
meander in and out of historical vogue, but there can be little doubt
that, in the confined world of Eyemouth, this most successful of
fishermen was head of the community. He was well read, articulate
and thoughtful and when Spears moved, Eyemouth followed. In
1854, when the recruiting agent for the R.N. Coast Volunteers
visited the town, a packed public meeting gave no response until
Spears nodded his approval, when 64 fishermen immediately came
forward. 26 At Burnmouth, just two miles down the coast by
contrast, the same recruiting officer entered one end of the single
” FB (SRO, AF/4/4), 20 Jan. 1847.
” FB (SRO, AF/4/4), 8 Dec. 1847.
See Annual Reports of EFO contained in FB papers (SRO, AF/23/43-45); BA,
„ 28 Sept. 1839; BA, 19 Jul. 1851.
’ £f° ( SRO - AF/23/43), 17 Dec. 1849; SRO, CH2/516/9, Chirnside Presbytery,
20 Aug. 1855.
BA, 18 Feb. 1854; 17 Jun. 1854.
lane village and the fishermen took to their heels from the other,
fearing the return of press-gang days. 27
Bell hoped that by peaceably putting a case against Spears,
precedents would be set which all would obey with equanimity.
But, by the late 1840s, the stimulus of high prices, ready, available
urban markets and a nearby railway connection had greatly
increased the Eyemouth fish trade. 28 Fleets from nearby ports now
made Eyemouth their home haven all year round, 29 and
immigration was tempered only by lack of accommodation. 30
Bigger and better boats were annually launched from the small yard
on the river Eye, and the developing prosperity of the town had a
knock-on effect on the morals of the fishermen. 31 They ceased
drinking their incomes, began to construct sound properties of
their own, took out stakes in expensive decked vessels, and became
increasingly literate and politically aware, ironically helped by
Bell’s schemes for social education.
In these circumstances fish tithe, which alone was levied at
Eyemouth, and for the support of an unpopular church, came to be
regarded as both anachronistic and unjust. 32 The Disruption and
subsequent assimilation by the state of much of the Kirk’s historic
welfare functions had apparently removed any rational
justification for the continuance of the tax. The perceived
persecution of the popular and influential Willie Spears galvanised
what had been a rather inchoate opposition into a coherent, and
surprisingly well-organised movement for the complete removal of
all forms of fish tithe. When Bell encountered difficulties in forcing
litigation against Spears he brought the matter to the attention of
Chirnside Presbytery, at a moment when the Church of Scotland
was suffering badly from the recently published results of the 1851
religious census. 33 The Establishment was determined to draw every
ounce of advantage from the fact that it was still the national kirk,
and as such was due the support, material as well as spiritual, of all
the people of Scotland.
In June 1854 the presbytery instructed Stephen Bell to be more
attentive to the enforcement of his rights and, in particular, to
demand full teind from all Eyemouth boats pursuing the herring
fishing, regardless of which crew members had paid the modus.
This dramatic twist in the dispute had an electric effect. By
enjoining the minister to levy such teind, the presbytery flew in the
27 BA, 4 Feb. 1854.
28 BA, 5 Apr. 1845.
29 BA, 26 Feb. 1853.
,0 EFO (SRO, AF/23/44), 25 Nov. 1854.
51 Ibid., 1 Apr. 1853; BA, 8 Mar. 1856.
32 Reply of the Eyemouth Fishermen to the Pamphlet of the Presbytery of
Chirnside (Berwick, 1861), 14.
33 Religious Worship and Education in Scotland (PP, 1854, lix); SRO, CH2/5 16/9,
Chirnside Presbytery, 11 Apr. 1854.
face of tradition by disregarding age-old exemptions guaranteed by
modus payment. Moreover, the minister was also forced to demand
half-teind from stranger boats, threatening the entire trade of the
port. That such a provocative stance was taken is evidence of an
attempt to reassert the rights of a nervous Establishment. The
privileges of the benefice had to be maintained, the fishermen could
not be allowed carte blanche to do as they wished. Perhaps just as
important, proper enforcement of the right to tithe would bring in
a considerable sum as the herring trade at Eyemouth continued to
From 1854 onwards, this predominantly local issue gradually
received increasing national prominence, at times eclipsing the
similar, and better-known, Annuity Tax controversy, and involving
the Church of Scotland in unseemly and embarrassing events at a
time of hesitant inter-denominational rapprochement. Arguments
were rehearsed which two decades later would be vented in the
disestablishment debates; a newspaper and pamphlet war began,
running in parallel with a series of damaging legal actions; political
intimidation occurred in Eyemouth, at the time of the general
election in 1859, apparently confirming the links between a corrupt
church and a reactionary landed class; and the religious revival of
1860 provided a strange interlude in this most curious of Victorian
affairs. To add spice, a number of riots took place; fishermen were
jailed for their principles as well as for their violence; goods were
rouped, assaults committed, effigies of the minister and the squire
burnt; and as events threatened to get out of control the
government even considered sending in a subduing force.
• When Bell, in the summer of 1855, attempted to levy herring
tithe as instructed by the presbytery, he was prevented from doing
so by the physical obstruction of the fishermen. 35 The merchants of
Eyemouth actively supported and encouraged this stance, as they
witnessed something they had long feared — a partial desertion of
the port by stranger boats on account of the increased vigour of
tithe exactions. 36 With the liberal-radical Berwick Advertiser’s
warming to the cause of religious freedom in Eyemouth, Stephen
Bell sent to Edinburgh for “two determined men”:
. . who should watch over the boats as they come into
harbour, and note the quantity of herrings in each, with the
view to levying the tithe”. 37
The gesture was a provocative one, hardly likely to calm
increasingly volatile tempers. Within a week indeed, the Edinburgh
“toughs” were run out of town in a riot which was really more of a
,4 EFO (SRO, AF/23/43-45).
” SRO, CH2/516/9, Chirnside Presbytery, 20 Aug. 1854.
J ‘ BA, 21 Jul. 1855; 28 Jul. 1855; 25 Aug. 1855.
17 SRO, CH2/516/9, Chirnside Presbytery, 20 Aug. 1854.
celebration, and which marked a more militant phase in the
defiance of tithe. 38
At the trial of those arrested for affray, Bell blamed the
deteriorating situation on “parties behind the scenes”. 39 Clearly he
was referring to the actions of the merchant class, who were
especially aware of the consequences should stranger boats not
return to the port, and who had more to gain, and little to lose from
a sustained boycott of the tithe. Joining Willie Spears on a hastily
formed democratic fishermen’s committee were fishcurers like
John Dickson, and tradesmen such as Timothy Statham,
significantly the Eyemouth correspondent to the Berwick
Advertiser , and a man ahead of his time in grasping the potential
power of the press on public opinion. 40 But it was the fishermen
themselves who made up the bulk of this committee, which, it
should be noted, developed in November 1855, out of a public
meeting held, not in the Mason’s Hall as was normal, but in the
Primitive Methodist chapel. 41 Here we see evidence of the growth
of religious sentiment, itself a corollary of the growing prosperity
and respectability of the fishermen. 42 It was no accident that the
Revival of 1860 found fertile ground in Eyemouth; it had long been
prepared for. 43
That meeting in the early winter of 1855 was an occasion which
deserves a place in any history of popular Scottish revolts. Willie
Spears, shouting to make himself heard, moved to unanimous
acclaim that “Tithe be no longer paid by the fishermen of
Eyemouth”, and a covenant to this effect was signed by the entire
assembled sea-going portion of the town. 44 Here was a direct
challenge to the authority of the Establishment which could not be
allowed to pass. Indeed as the legal proceedings against Spears and
his “covenanters” continued, the arguments became less concerned
with the matter of tangible rewards to a particular parish living,
than with the issue of principle and the rights of a national church
recovering from the shock of 1843, and gaining in confidence for
Arrayed against that Establishment was the enthusiastic
Berwick Advertiser and the opposition of hundreds of fishermen
from all over Britain, whose contributions flooded in to a solidarity
fund. 45 Public opinion was courted by the fishermen from the very
31 D. Mclvor, An Old Time Fishing Town: Eyemouth (Greenock, 1906), 171.
39 BA, 3 Nov. 1855.
40 BN, 19 Dec. 1876.
41 BA, 15 Dec. 1855.
42 Total abstinence flourished in Eyemouth from the early 1840s, with religion
generally penetrating into this most unchristian of Scottish towns by the mid
1850s. BA, 9 Jan. 1841, 8 Aug. 1846, 30 Nov. 1850, 8 Mar. 1856.
43 W. Reid, Authentic Records of the Revival (London, 1860), 321.
44 Mclvor, Fishing Town, 171. BA, 15. Dec. 1855.
43 BA, 9 Feb. 1856.
start, and Statham, as secretary of the fishermen’s committee,
conducted a stinging campaign, in satirical verse as well as in prose,
through the columns of the Advertiser , and occasionally in the
Edinburgh papers also.
This priest was very bold and gay
Three quarters of the year
But o’ it grieved him very much
When tything time drew near. 46
The public were constantly reminded that it was the parish church
which had begun the conflict, and that prior to 1854 the fishermen
had contentedly paid the modus, which had increased in value from
7s. 6d. in the eighteenth century, to £43 6s. 8d. when it was
withheld. 47 This avowed former willingness to pay the church its
dues was not wholly truthful, but the propaganda campaign was
effective and the avarice of the church in demanding a full tenth of
the earnings of “poor” fishermen was widely condemned.
Against this tide of criticism the Church party was supported
locally in print by the Tory Berwick Warder, although at times this
paper lost credibility, fearing a neo-Chartist resurgence and
characterising the dispute as one between the lawful forces of
constituted authority and stability against those of anarchy and
revolution. 48 In fact, early in 1856, the fishermen of Eyemouth did
procure a radical banner and flag of liberty. These were to be
symbolic of their stand, and
“. . . to convey to the rising generation the nature of the
glorious struggle their fathers were engaged in in order to get
that liberty which has now become the birthright of Britons,
and which is only withheld from the fishermen”. 49
The flag was embossed with a full length figure of a fisherman, his
hand resting on a basket of herrings and, above his head in bold
letters of gold the words, “Pay no Tithe!” On the banner, richly
ornamented with wreaths of flowers, was the emotional
In Liberty’s ennobling cause
Our fisher lads stand weal;
And gloriously have won the right
Of freedom to the creel. 50
In July 1856, when all 28 Eyemouth skippers were summoned,
** BA, 23 Feb. 1856.
47 Reply of William Spears to the Pamphlet Letter of David Milne-Holme
(Berwick, 1862), 12.
" BA, \ Nov. 1856.
49 BA, 17 May 1856.
,0 BA, 26 Jul. 1856.
on Bell’s insistence, to appear at Ayton J.P. Court for tithe arrears,
a demonsration of strength was organised for the same day. It was
the most remarkable procession seen in Eyemouth since the day
when Mary Stewart had traversed the streets of the town. At about
10 a.m. the St Abbs’ brass band played the fishermen of nearby
Coldingham into the market place, then turned and led a 2,000
strong parade, neatly ordered four abreast, along the main road to
Ayton. Immediately behind the band came the fishermen’s
committee in traditional dress, then the naval coast volunteers, the
skippers summoned for tithe, the whole body of Eyemouth and
other Berwickshire fishermen, the fish-merchants, coopers and
tradesmen of the town, and finally the stranger crews from
Buckhaven, Fisherrow, Yarmouth and Penzance. To the strains of
“Caller Herring”, the procession snaked the two miles to Ayton,
doubling in size along the way as landsmen showed an unusual
solidarity with their sea-faring neighbours, doubtless drawing upon
a long tradition of religious non-conformity in rural eastern
Berwickshire. At Ayton Castle cheers were given for the Liberal
proprietor, Captain Mitchell-Innes, whose sympathies reportedly
lay with the demonstraters. 51
The Berwick Advertiser applauded the exercise as,
“. . . a noble assertion of sound and sterling principles,
marred by no demagogueism, no furious mob eloquence,
depending on nothing but the all prevailing might of moral
At that moment responsible public opinion was on the side of the
fishermen, and it was therefore necessary that the campaign
remained non-violent. In contrast to the views of at least one
contemporary commentator, this sea-going population was not
only literate but also very aware of the worth of favourable press
By the time of the 1857 drave, the economic effects of the
boycott at Eyemouth had crystallised. More stranger boats than
ever before arrived off the Berwickshire coast, encouraged by the
cry of “No Tithe at Eyemouth” and greeted at the harbour
entrance by the sight of the famous flag defiantly nailed to the pier
head. 54 The 1857 season was the best for a generation, both in
terms of catch value and quantity, and, as boatbuilding and
housebuilding boomed, the population lurched upwards. 55 No
amount of legalistic or authoritatian argument would now
51 Mclvor, Fishing Town, 173.
” BA, 2 Aug. 1856.
55 Bertram, Harvest, 471.
54 BA, 1 Aug. 1857.
55 EFO (SRO, AF/23/44), 2 Jan. 1858.
persuade the fishermen or merchants of Eyemouth to go back to
paying vicarage teind.
The Church was perplexed. Not only was an important
ecclesiastical right threatened by this revolt, but the whole nature,
and future, of the tithe system on which rested the strength of the
stipend within the Establishment, seemed in danger. While legal
decisions were awaited the press war continued, with the Advertiser
generally winning the day against the virulent invective of the
Warder. The Eyemouth defence fund swelled monthly, with aid
even coming from the unlikely source of the proceeds from
temperance lectures held in the town. 56 This, again, demonstrates
the new-found sobriety of the fishermen and the respectability of
One battle seemed won when the Sheriff-substitute of the
county decided at Duns, early in 1858, that those fishermen who
had been in the use and wont of paying modus (that is, the
Eyemouth fishermen generally) were exempted from the payment
of herring tithe. 57 Bell and the presbytery were here presented with
an opportunity to save face and to press only for the payment of
modus, withheld since 1854, perhaps in the process depriving the
fishermen of public sympathy. But points of principle, if not the
sums involved, were too strong, and an appeal was lodged against
the ruling. In the subsequent action, the Sheriff of Berwickshire
judged against the fishermen and held that earlier eighteenth-
century decisions were res judicata and that the Eyemouth men
should indeed pay herring teind, under certain conditions. 58 The
fishermen were outraged, declared their suspicion of judicial
corruption, and moved to bring their case before the Court of
Session. As the issue passed to Edinburgh, the Advertiser drew the
first of many analogies with a religious controversy of similar
background then convulsing the Scottish capital:
“The Annuity Tax is an unfair and unchristian demand, but
how very insignificant does it appear when compared to the
strange demand made upon our fishermen”. 59
As litigation progressed, Eyemouth figured prominently in a
new controversy, when the family of David Milne-Home attempted
to intimidate the not insignificant number of electors in the town in
the General Election of 18 5 9. 60 These political manoeuverings were
widely publicised throughout Britain and this “shameful act of
abuse” 61 may have helped in the return of David Robertson,
’* BA, 21 Nov. 1857.
1^858^ E yernoul h Fishermen to Presbytery of Chirnside, 12; BA, 13 Feb.
51 BA, 14 Aug. 1858.
’’ BA, 20 Nov. 1858.
" B C A ' 16 Apr. 1859, 23 Apr. 1859, 30 Apr. 1859.
Scotsman, 27 Apr. 1859, 30 Apr. 1859, 4 May 1859.
Berwickshire’s first Liberal member for a quarter of a century. 62 It
certainly ensured the Liberal solidarity of the Eyemouth voters and
further maligned Milne-Home, an active member of the Church
party in the tithe dispute, in the eyes of his tenantry. The Advertiser
was not slow to conjure up a vision of a church-state conspiracy to
enslave the fishermen of Berwickshire. The machinations of the
Tory gentry in the election could not have helped the cause of the
kirk and, as Robertson became more involved with matters relating
to the tithe, party politics was added as a supplementary theme.
In the aftermath of this episode, the religious revival, which
had spread like a tornado across North America and through
Ireland, hit Scotland. 63 The fervour of lay preaching (and
communal singing) which distinguished the movement from earlier
awakenings, reduced its effect on the Established church, but fitted
in neatly with the fishing culture of the Scottish east coast. 64
Eyemouth was one of the first towns to be affected in the east, and
the outcome ws stunning. 65 Vast numbers were “struck down”.
The Primitive Methodists recovered much lost ground, 66 the Free
Church expanded, 67 the United Presbyterians blossomed, 68 and the
Evangelical Union was given a wildly enthusiastic welcome. 69
Nightly prayer meetings were held for some considerable time and
worship continued even in boats on the ocean. 70 The remnants of
drunkenness disappeared, and the formerly accepted practice of
fishing on the Sabbath was wholly abandoned.
Yet any notion that the revival might have weakened the anti-
tithe stance of the fishermen could scarcely have been more
inaccurate. It strengthened their conviction, enriched the forces of
dissent, and barely affected attendances at the deserted auld kirk. 71
In May 1860, Bell dramatically resigned the action in the Court
of Session before any decision was promulgated, and the
fishermen, prematurely celebrated victory. The minister then
proceeded to issue detailed bills of arrears of modus dues and
herring teind. It was a development which was viewed with
cynicism, Statham commenting, “We only trust it has not been
done to provoke a breach of the peace”. 72
Feelings in the town were certainly running high but spirits
42 T. Wilkie, The Representation of Scotland (Paisley, 1895).
63 Bussey, Harvest, 31, 46; Scotsman, 8 Oct. 1859.
64 Bussey, Harvest, 48; W. J. Couper, Scottish Revivals (Dundee, 1918), 135.
45 Bussey, Harvest, 48; Reid, Revival, 321-35.
44 Patterson, Men on Fire, 125-29.
47 Reid, Revival, 322.
44 U.P. Magazine, n.s., iv (1860), 421.
49 H. Escott, A History of Scottish Congregationalism (Glasgow, 1960), 336;
Mclvor, Fishing Town, 321, 323.
70 Christian News, 7 Dec. 1 859.
71 Bussey, Harvest, 321.
72 BA, 14 Jul. 1860.
were lifted in August, when Robertson sent a cheque for £25 to the
fishermen’s defence fund. With such influential support at their
back, capitulation to this, or to any future demands could scarcely
be considered. 73 Even when Chirnside presbytery took the case
before the General Assembly in 1861, which then appointed a
committee of inquiry, no undue alarm was felt in Eyemouth. 74
William Spears, who continued to be the prime legal target of the
church, declared that should the General Assembly
“. . . even in the name and for the support of religion distrain
and publicly sell the effects of the fishermen they will find no
obstruction. Of one thing only they may be certain, that they
will require to renew the unseemly display year after year, for
the fishermen have in the most solemn manner bound
themselves to refuse payment of tithe forever”. 75
Yet behind the rhetoric was a feeling of unease that the less
restrained members of the community might be pushed into direct,
violent, and counter-productive confrontation. The catalyst for
this came when Spears was once more identified and acted against
for tithe arrears. In Eyemouth the news brought youngsters out on
to the streets with effigies of Stephen Bell and David Milne-Home.
These were ceremoniously hanged and then burnt in front of the
manse garden in the centre of the town. 76 Dramatic as this may
have seemed it only warned of worse scenes to follow.
As the dispute deepened and stalemate set in, the first of seven
printed tracts in a pamphlet war appeared. In an attempt to redress
the propaganda advantage of the fishermen, Chirnside presbytery,
acting on the orders of the General Assembly’s Committee, issued a
detailed statement of their view of the facts of the case and of the
legitimate rights of the church. 77 Within a week the fishermen
published a reply, repudiating all claims made by the presbytery,
reiterating that the dispute originated through the greed of the
minority church in Eyemouth, and denying emphatically that any
similar exactions were levied elsewhere. 78 This articulate polemic
. . in reference to all the bombast about the law and
gunboats and troops of cavalry to cut us down . . . and about
organised resistance to the law being a crime, we will remind
” BA, 25 Aug. I860.
SRO, CH2/516/10, Chirnside Presbytery, 7 May 1861; General Assembly
75 BA, 22 Jun. 1861.
7 ‘ BA, 19 Oct. 1861.
Statement In the Eyemouth Fish Teind Case by the Presbytery of Chirnside
0861); BA, 9 Nov. 1861.
Reply of the Eyemouth Fishermen-, BA, 16 Nov. 1861.
you that there is no more doing here than is doing just now in
and proceeded to quote Duncan MacLaren’s opposition to the
Annuity Tax there by way of example.
The increasingly acrimonious verbal duelling turned to deeds
of real violence when two sheriff officers, supported by 16
policemen, arrived in Eyemouth in the early hours of Thursday, 28
November 1861 to arrest Willie Spears for continued refusal to pay
tithe arrears. 80 Resembling future communal crofter resistance, a
riot involving at least 500 people (just under a third of the total
population) swiftly developed. The sheriff officers had hoped to
capture Spears whilst the bulk of the men were at sea, but by
chance that day the entire fleet had grounded on a sandbank at the
mouth of the harbour. 81 On hearing the fracas, the fishermen
leaped ashore and raced to Spears’ house. At first, the police were
pelted with bread from piece bags, but as truncheons were drawn
cobbles were lifted and an ugly situation developed. 82 At the height
of the battle, Willie Spears emerged from his house, a stout fisher
lad at either flank “and the police were ‘daured’ to lift him”. 83
Retreating first to the cramped Eyemouth station, the police
cowered there for four hours, under a constant barrage of rocks
and stones, before attempting to escape to Ayton. Several of their
number were seriously injured, including the Chief Constable of
Berwickshire, and one officer was actually made to sign a paper
declaring that no missiles had been thrown. If he had refused to do
so, he would have been flung in the harbour. 84 Two Eyemouth men
who were rather unluckily captured, later received heavy jail
sentences handed down from the High Court of Justiciary. Yet
public opinion, strangely, seems not to have been alienated by the
riot. One letter to the Scotsman noted that, “The scene witnessed
that morning was enough to convince the most sceptical that the
fleece and not the flock is the grand object [of the church]”. 85
The national prominence given to the disturbances also drew
dissenting ministers to Eyemouth — especially those of the United
Presbyterian Church — to “countenance the fishermen in their
opposition of the tithe”. 86 In the U.P. Magazine in 1862 a
discussion of the Eyemouth controversy was subtitled, “The State
Church Promoting Voluntaryism”, noting, with some relish,
“That the fishermen are becoming thorough and intelligent
79 BA, 16 Nov. 1861.
10 Scotsman, 30 Nov. 1861.
" Mclvor, Fishing Town, 176.
12 Scotsman, 18 Feb. 1862.
11 Mclvor, Fishing Town, 177.
14 Scotsman, 7 Dec. 1861.
16 BA, 21 Dec. 1861.
voluntaries”. 87 The Free Church remained largely mute on the
issue: 88 the early 1860s was not yet the time to encourage
individuals or groups which so directly questioned the
establishment principle, to which many Free Kirkers remained
loyally attached. But there was general condemnation of the Lord
Advocate for his inaction in allowing such a situation to develop. 89
Early in 1862, James Moncrieff did become involved when a
powerful deputation from the church party waited upon him. 90
John Shand, convener of the General Assembly Committee,
pressed the Crown to help formulate a compromise solution to the
tithe problem in Eyemouth. In particular a fixed harbour rate,
within which the tithe could be subsumed (a modified form of
which already existed at Dunbar) was suggested as a possible means
of settlement. All were agreed that the law as it stood had been
The harbour bill proposal bears all the hallmarks of David
Milne-Home who, in 1862, became a member of the General
Assembly Committee on the Fish Tithe. Playing the dual role of
kirk adviser and town superior he cherished the hope that out of the
imbroglio there might be concocted a package not only to settle the
tithe, but also to rescue the port from bankruptcy, since all surplus
harbour dues would, under the bill, be available for improvement
work or as a guarantee of the interest on capital investment. Milne-
Home remained single-minded in pursuit of this aim. Indeed, his
dogged refusal to admit of any other scheme of settlement kept the
controversy alive for a further two years. Meanwhile, equally
stubbornly, the fishermen, after seven years of struggle, saw
victory on the horizon and declined to accept anything less than
complete aboliton of the tithe. At a public meeting held in April
1862 the proposed harbour bill was discussed and unanimously
rejected. 91 The main terms would have awarded the minister an
annual sum of £80 with further augmentation possible on appeal to
the Court of Teinds. Eyemouth fishing boats would have been
charged £4 a year, and stranger craft £2 a year for the privilege of
using the port, so generating a yearly revenue of at least £300. 92 The
residue of this amount was to be made available for general
harbour purposes. The fishermen did not deny that harbour
U.P. Magazine , n.s., vi (1862), 461-67.
" Letter of David Milne-Home to David Robertson M.P., 23 May 1862 (Lord
Advocate’s papers, SRO, AD/ 156/38).
” Letter of David Milne-Home to David Robertson M.P., 1 May 1862 (SRO,
90 Statement of John Shand, Feb., 1862 (SRO, AD/156/38). General Assembly
Letter of David Robertson M.P. to the Lord Advocate, 28 Apr. 1862 (SRO,
Proposed Heads of an Act of Parliament for the Settlement of the Eyemouth
Fish Teinds (SRO, AD/156/38).
development was essential, nor were they reluctant to contribute to
such an enterprise. 93 But they could not concede any plan which
incorporated, even in a disguised form, tithe levies. The issue was
too emotive, the principle too important.
Milne-Home advised the Lord Advocate to introduce the bill
regardless of the local opposition, and at this juncture the Liberal
M.P., David Robertson, entered the fray. 94 He refused to support a
bill which the fishermen themselves repudiated, and Moncrieff was
reluctant to risk the embarrassment of bringing legislation into the
House of Commons without the backing of the member for
In fact, Robertson was to suggest a way out of the impasse
following a meeting at which he played host to a delegation of three
Eyemouth men, including Spears, and a representative of Chirnside
presbytery. Writing to the Lord Advocate that, “You might as well
attempt to turn the sun from its course, as the fishermen of
Eyemouth from their determined purpose”, Robertson reported
that the possibility of agreeing the payment of a capital sum of
£1,000 to buy outright and for all time the church’s right to the
tithe had been warmly received by both parties. 96 An arbiter to
decide the exact amount of compensation was also suggested in the
person of Captain Mitchell-Innes of Ayton Castle.
Milne-Home was upset at this development since it threatened
to scupper his clearly preferred plan, and he proceeded to write
alarmist letters to Robertson, the Lord Advocate, and to the press
on the implications of such a surrender. He also questioned the
legal competence of Mitchell-Innes as arbiter, and opined that the
true value of the teind was not £1,000 but over £10,000:
“If the rich and energetic merchants and shopkeepers of
Edinburgh tried to purchase up the Annuity Tax and failed, it
will be no slur on the fishermen of Eyemouth if they fail in a
similar attempt”. 97
Milne-Home thus destroyed any tentative hopes there had
been of a peacable solution and initiated again the pamphlet war,
drawing an immediate written response from the fishermen who
now moved on to the offensive and challenged the morality of
taxing dissenters for Establishment purposes. 98 Latching on to this,
95 Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into Sea Fisheries of the
United Kingdom (PP, xvii-xviii), 618-627. BA, 23 Jul. 1859.
94 Letter of David Milne-Home to the Lord Advocate, 3 May 1862 (SRO,
95 Letter of David Robertson M.P. to Timothy Statham, Secretary of the
Eyemouth Fishermen’s Committee, 13 May 1862 (Copy, SRO, AD/156/38).
96 Letter of David Robertson M.P. to the Lord Advocate, 28 Apr. 1862 (SRO,
97 Pamphlet Letter of Milne-Home to Spears, 21.
91 Pamphlet Reply of William Spears, 16.
Milne-Home argued that not only church tithes in Eyemouth but,
by implication, those held by lay proprietors throughout the
country were now at risk.
“The interests therefore involved in this little rebellion at
Eyemouth are too extensive, and the principles too important
to be trifled with, or to be disregarded by the government
authorities. If the rights of the church in this instance are
allowed to be trampled on, a precedent would be set, which
may justly cause alarm, not only to all persons of property,
but to all good citizens and subjects”. 99
The Warder might have been impressed by such a diatribe, but it
had little effect otherwise, save for eliciting a personal attack in
another pamphlet issued by the fishermen, in which Milne-Home’s
fickle manoeuvering was denounced as “not only not honourable
[but] . . . scarcely honest”. 100
Disestablishment, something which had barely been con-
sidered in 1854, was now warmly embraced by the bulk of the
fishermen. And come that day, Milne-Home was warned, the
landed gentry would be stripped of part of their assets:
“The land which is now charged with the support of the so-
called national church, would, in justice, go back to the
There never was a less equivocable statement of voluntary
principles, nor a more radical pronouncement on ultimate tithe
ownership. The right to fish in the sea, of course, belonged to no-
Despite the obstructions of Milne-Home, Robertson continued
to mediate between the two parties on the basis of a capital-
purchase scheme. 102 A new arbiter, Robert Ingham, M.P. for
South Shields, was appointed in place of Mitchell-Innes who could
not continue following the allegations made against his legal
competence. By the spring of 1863 the impending judgement was
anticipated and, in one final gamble, Milne-Home attempted to
sabotage the negotiations by hinting to the fishermen that the
amount to be awarded was well beyond their means, and again
urging them to consider the merits of a harbour rate. 103 Robertson,
on learning of this gambit, wrote to the Lord Advocate:
Pamphlet Letter to David Robertson M.P. from David Milne-Home of
Wedderburn (Edinburgh, 1862), 33-4.
Pamphlet Reply of the Fishermen’s Committee to the Letter of David Milne-
Home Sent to David Robertson M.P. (Berwick, 1862), 10.
,0 ' Ibid, 20.
L° rd Advocate’s Papers (miscellaneous) (SRO, AD/156/38).
Letter of David Milne-Home to the Lord Advocate, 25 Apr. 1863 (SRO,
“I have seen much to deprecate and surprise in the conduct of
Mr Milne-Home . . . who has been the sole cause of the
mischief from beginning to end and but for whom the church
would have gladly settled it through me long ago”. 104
Ingham eventually awarded £1,625 as compensation to the
church for relinquishing all rights in the fish teind, as well as £275
personally to Stephen Bell in lieu of nine years’ arrears. By any
standards it was a vast sum, but what may seem rather surprising in
the circumstances is that the fishermen evidently believed that the
bulk of the money would be raised locally through gentlemanly
subscriptions. 105 Certainly the Berwick Advertiser backed the call
for contributions but it was not generously responded to. 106 Milne-
Home, accepting defeat and eager to make peace with his
disaffected tennantry, gave £200, and Mitchell-Innes and David
Robertson donated £100 apiece. The merchants of Eyemouth also
made payments and even Bell sent £2. 107 Most of the redemption
capital, however, had to be borrowed from the Commercial Bank,
and this was not finally repaid until 1878. 108 To facilitate the
eradication of the debt, a democratically elected committee of
fishermen took over the church’s surrendered rights of tithe and
enforced continued payments from all crews using Eyemouth, even
to the point of legal action against those who refused. 109
Despite the professed desires of all parties involved to forget
the past, the Established Church in Eyemouth was to remain very
much a denomination in the minority, largely ignored by even
pious fishermen. This was most clearly seen in October 1881 when,
out of 129 Eyemouth men who drowned in the fishing disaster,
only a handful were in any way connected with the Church of
Scotland. 110 Stephen Bell however was much admired for his
principled stand and when he worked himself into an early grave
tending the 93 widows and 263 fatherless children left in the wake
of the tragedy, obituary notices appeared in the press from
dissenters and fishermen, as well as from those in his own flock. 111
Willie Spears did not die the noble death that would have befitted a
folk hero, but passed away as a pauperised drunkard in an
unmarked grave, having frittered all his wealth on the demon drink
he so often denounced in the days of the tithe dispute. 112 David
104 Letter of David Robertson M.P. to the Lord Advocatre, 25 Apr. 1863 (SRO,
105 Letter of Timothy Statham to David Robertson M.P., 17 May 1862 (SRO,
AD/156/38); EFO (SRO, AF/23/45), 21 May 1863.
106 BA, 13 Jun. 1863.
107 BA, 13 Feb. 1864.
10 ' BA, 25 Jan. 1878.
EFO (SRO, AF/23/46), 22 Nov. 1869.
"° Mclvor, Fishing Town, 36.
1,1 BN, 16 Mar. 1886, 23 Mar. 1886.
112 Eyemouth Poor Inspector’s Visiting Book (Border Regional Library Collection).
Milne-Hume continued to agitate for a harbour rate as the only
rational means to promote the interests of the port." 3 But not until
1873 was this hope realised, and the harbour remained insolvent
until the late 1870s. Only in 1881 was an extensive plan for port
development produced and a loan, or grant, of £80,000 requested
from government. 1 ' 4 At last Eyemouth, where attention had so
long been diverted by the fish tithe issue, was to be provided with
facilities to rival the great northern centres, and the south-east of
Scotland would share in an economic bonanza. In successive
government reports the town had been noted as being “on the very
key of the coast”, ideal for fishery and trade expansion." 5
On 14 October 1881, as the harbour plan was receiving official
attention, the Eyemouth fleet set sail on a bright, almost windless
morning. At about noon the sky darkened and a fierce hurricane
broke, destroying 26 of the 45 craft and drowning 129 of the town’s
best men." 6 Many boats were wrecked on that day simply because
they could not gain access to the tidal basin of Eyemouth
harbour." 7 It was to take almost a century for the population of
the town to recover and, almost incredibly, the port development
plans of the 1870s are still being pressed today, at a current cost in
excess of £19 million." 8 Without the distraction of the mid-century
tithe dispute, Eyemouth may well have been selected in preference
to other, perhaps less well advantaged, creeks for harbour
development. Had this happened it is intriguing to speculate on
what might have been for the town, the county and the
underdeveloped economy of the Border region.
The confrontation between church and people had an
importance far beyond arguments about the moral and legal right
of the Eyemouth minister to ancient vicarage tithe. As we have
seen, the actions of the church itself could weaken the cause of
Establishment and, indeed, promote that of the dissenting
churches. More than this, religious disputes and rivalries such as
those in Eyemouth, could have wide ranging economic and social
In Eyemouth today the parish church remains a competitor
with several other denominations. It is sited in a grand
Normanesque building, formerly used by the Free Church prior to
the reunion, and many worshippers still refer to it as the “Free
Kirk”. The Auld Kirk, scene of so much violent acrimony in the
1,1 EFO (SRO, AF/23/46), 2 Feb. 1871.
" 4 FB Papers (SRO, AF/38/62/1).
" 5 Royal Commission on Herring Fishing (PP, 1878 xxi); EFO (SRO, AF/23/47),
27 May 1878.
Mclvor, Fishing Town, 9-26; Eyemouth Disaster Relief Committee, Minute
i Book (Eyemouth Museum Collection).
” Scotsman, 25 Oct. 1881; Berwick Journal, 25 May 1882.
EHT, PIED A Report (1987).
1850s and 1860s now, fittingly, houses the Eyemouth Museum.
Positioned in the centre of a permanent display is a scale model of a
fishing boat and mock fishermen dressed in traditional garb. It is
ironic that Spears’ “Covenanters”, who would rather go to jail
than bow to the Establishment, should now be exhibited right over
the pulpit of Stephen Bell.